Upcoming presentation: ‘A Blank Space Where You Write Your Name’

I will be participating in a panel with Emily Baker, Ian Biddle and Freya Jarman at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. Our panel is on Sunday 17 April and my paper is entitled ‘A Blank Space Where You Write Your Name: Taylor Swift’s Early Late Voice’. Abstract below.


Taylor Swift’s songs invite listeners to connect art and life in the tradition, if not always the style, of the ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter. From an early age, Swift has written and sung about ‘big topics’ like time and experience with a remarkable sense of self awareness. Her songs hymn youthful experience to great effect through references to specific ages or via more general depictions of girlishness, school, first loves, summer vacations and family. Through her lyrical preoccupations, Swift exemplifies many aspects of what I call ‘late voice’, a way of thinking about the writing and singing of time, age and experience. My conceptualisation of lateness considers artists and listeners not only in terms of conventional ‘late’ periods (i.e. old age), but as subjects who reflect on such issues throughout our lives. In the first part of this paper, I make the case for Swift as an exponent of ‘early late voice’.

While a number of commentators have picked up on the maturity of Swift’s writing voice, comparatively little attention has been paid to her singing. I address this gap by looking at the conflation of writing/singing in the singer-songwriter’s voice. I examine tensions that have been noted between Swift’s art and her star persona. To what extent, I ask, is the denigration of Swift’s musical style (her singing as much as her move towards chart pop) a gendered attack on young women’s voices? At the same time, what strategies have been used to authenticate Swift as an artist by other critics? I conclude with a discussion of Ryan Adams’s cover of Swift’s 1989 album and the critical discourse surrounding it, arguing that the ‘blank space’ of Swift’s voice becomes legitimated and appropriated by a critical discourse focussed on roots, genre and masculinity.

New article on Patti Smith published

Patti.Smith.Outside.CoverMy essay ‘Words from the New World: Adventure and Memory in Patti Smith’s Late Voice’ has been published in the book Patti Smith: Outside, edited by Claude Chastagner (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015).

ABSTRACT: Patti Smith’s late work is invariably connected by critics and fans to the work of her ‘classic’ era (the 1970s punk scene) and the extent to which recent work lives up to, develops or exceeds that on which the artist’s reputation was based. Smith herself has been no stranger to such memory work, via her involvement in biographical projects such as her book Just Kids and the film Dream of Life. Her musical output since the 1990s has been characterized by memory work, not least in a number of pieces written in response to the passing of friends and family. Yet this work is complemented by an embrace of new beginnings and adventure, often achieved by returning to places, themes and styles Smith has explored before but looking for fresh angles and new perspectives. This essay explores the dynamic of adventure and memory via analysis of Smith’s 2012 album Banga, in which this dynamic is played out in informative ways. I focus on the music of Banga too, and on the different voices utilised by Smith. In the second part of the essay, I consider the canonisation of Smith and her work in light of what I term ‘late chronicles’, a series of documents and events over the past fifteen years that have seen Smith’s work fixed into the rock canon and have provided further context to situate her work and her many cultural reference points. I finish with some further observations on Banga, filtered through the knowledge we have of Smith from the late chronicles that preceded it.

The book is part of the series ‘Profils américains’ – more information available at the PULM website.

Patti Smith: Outside contents

‘Pop pollution’ as ‘pornography’? I can’t even

Last week, the philosopher Roger Scruton used a 10-minute talk on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Point of View’ programme to rail, once more, against popular culture. His talk, entitled ‘The Tyranny of Pop’, attacked what he sees as the denigration of culture, social interaction and education by the ‘banal melodies’, ‘mechanical rhythms’ and general ubiquity of ‘vacuous’ popular music. In what has become his typical style, Scruton blamed the ills of society on pop music, demonstrating little understanding of popular culture but rather extolling a monolithic notion of what ‘Music’ is.

The first part of the talk concerned the ubiquity of popular music in public places and the ‘banal’ noise ‘disgorged’ from hidden speakers. The resulting chaos has led to a situation, apparently, where human interaction is no longer possible and public space has been conquered by inhuman sound. Ignoring the fact that all the disastrous developments he finds abhorrent are the result of human interaction and invention, Scruton posits a timeless notion of the ‘human’ that has been destroyed by an inhuman ‘them’ (‘they’ are left unnamed except for a reference to the now-defunct Muzak company).

‘Anybody with the slightest feeling for music’, argued Scruton, is now driven to distraction when undertaking a visit to the pub or restaurant and has to struggle to endure the torture afflicting their ears. The problem, apparently, stems from the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s and the subsequent decline in musical understanding throughout the twentieth century as new technologies were accompanied by new cultures of listening and performance.

There are problems with this chronology, however. The idea that (annoying) noise is an invention of the twentieth century shows little historical awareness of sound in society. As Emily Cockayne has shown in her wonderful book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, early modern English cities were constant sources of assault on the senses. And, as numerous other studies from the disciplines of musicology, history, literature and sound studies have also shown, sonic and other sensory nuisances are not restricted to urban centres. Societies are noisy things and have been, it seems, for as long as people have been making critical noises about them.

But Scruton is not really interested in sound in this sense. Instead, social noise is used as the Trojan horse from which he can build, yet again, a set of elitist views on music, its culture and values. Pop music’s melodies, rhythms and recycled ‘stock harmonies’ signal ‘the eclipse of the musical ear’. Pop doesn’t need to be listened to because it has nothing serious to communicate. Rather, it has become the cause of, and not just one of a long historical line of ingredients in, the contemporary hubbub.

Scruton also used his talk to attack the language and culture of young people, citing the over-use of the word ‘like’ as an example and claiming that this inarticulacy of today’s youth was due to listening to pop. As the extremity of his views escalated, he stated that ‘pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography on sex’ and that ‘pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience’. Classical music is no longer a ‘universal resource’ and younger generations are left impoverished by this. There is no question here of whether, or where or for whom, classical music was a ‘universal music’, no recognition that there could be anything of musical value outside the Western European world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a timeless ‘Music’, for Scruton, just as there is a timeless ‘Human’.

As Scruton’s attack on noise, pop and young people reached its midpoint in one rapid reactionary point after another, my mind switched to a phrase a younger generation has adopted to articulate a sudden onset of shocking, unpleasant, scary or otherwise alarming information: ‘I can’t even’. While this may seem like proof of Scruton’s points – a signal of a real inability to process ideas – ‘I can’t even’ can also be seen as a witty and self-aware status and place marker posted temporarily while its user prepares a more time-consuming response. I also thought of how Scruton’s attacks showed so little contemplation on or awareness of the ways language evolves. Far from being the death of language, young people’s communication practices are products of, responses to and new inventions of the multiform possibilities allowed by language. When David Crystal wrote a piece for The Guardian some years ago in which he defended text messaging against accusations of linguistic degeneracy, he showed how the accumulation of knowledge gained from a lifetime’s study of a discipline can and must be allied with a sympathetic understanding of contemporary, cross-generational society. Unlike Crystal, however, Scruton would seemingly have us all stuck permanently in a cultural nineteenth century.

Since at least the 1960s we have witnessed an often brilliant succession of critical responses to rock and pop music in popular magazines, newspapers, books and digital media platforms, work that has shown the vitality of the music and the culture from which it emerges. As an academic discipline, popular music studies has grown over the last few decades into a vibrant international forum of ideas, approaches and discoveries. Pop music does not emerge from such analysis unscathed or uncriticised, but it does show itself to be an object worthy of serious, informed discussion.

Given the success of such endeavours, it may seem unnecessary to rise to the bait of a talk clearly designed to stir, albeit from the fairly safe environs of a Radio 4 morning slot, a bit of controversy. After all, not only is Scruton entitled to his ‘point of view’, but there will doubtless be a large number of listeners for whom he is speaking good sense. But my concern lies not only with the fact that Scruton’s views serve to undermine the work of fans, critics and scholars who are trying to take popular culture seriously. I worry too that there are residual, often dominant, forces within the academic and critical community who are unable or unwilling to take popular culture seriously even in late 2015 and who are shaping the cultural understanding of culture and the educational environment in which it is understood.

As a self-confessed ‘pop addict’, I may, of course, have lost ‘the capacity for genuine musical appreciation’. Even so, I take some comfort from the knowledge that – as pop fans have always known and as pop criticism and cultural musicology attempt to reinforce – pop can be a launching pad for thinking every bit as ‘erudite’ as Scruton’s but of a richer, more relevant and more inclusive sort. Hopefully those voices can ignore the moral and intellectual bullying propounded in attacks on what they hold to be valuable and make themselves heard as part of, not above or beyond, the hubbub.

New book: The Late Voice

LateVoice-coverThis week sees the publication of my third book, The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music. The book is being published by Bloomsbury Academic initially in a hardback edition. A cheaper paperback edition will be published at a later date.

From the book’s blurb: “Popular music artists, as performers in the public eye, offer a privileged site for the witnessing and analysis of ageing and its mediation. The Late Voice undertakes such an analysis by considering issues of time, age, memory, innocence and experience in modern popular song. At the heart of the study are six extended case studies of singers and songwriters – Ralph Stanley, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – whose work is discussed in relation to particular performance traditions and the articulation of lateness in various forms.”

I’ll be posting excerpts from the book on this site, along with additional material and links to audiovisual material related to the book’s main topics and case studies. In the meantime, more information and a preview of the book can be found here.

New publication: “Across the Evening Sky”: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone

My essay ‘Across the Evening Sky: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone’ has been published in the book Gender, Age and Musical Creativity, edited by Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton (Ashgate, 2015). GenderAgeMusicalCreativity

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores the work of three female musicians – Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone – who offer valuable insights into the interplay of history, biography and memory. It focuses specifically on the representation of innocence and experience via the “late voice”. “Lateness”, a concept exemplified by these artists but which extends to a broad range of modern (post mid-twentieth century) popular musics, refers to five primary issues: chronology (the stage in an artist’s career); the vocal act (the ability to convincingly portray experience); afterlife (posthumous careers made possible by phonography); retrospection (how voices “look back” or anticipate looking back); and the writing of age, experience, lateness and loss into song texts. The main case study of the chapter is the song ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, written by Denny and later performed by Collins and Simone. The song is analysed in terms of its representation of time and experience and in relation to the lives and works of its interpreters.

More information about the book here.

time gathered up

Those who say that even the young posess and know time, even though they thoughtlessly live for the future dimension, which is also time, such persons have never yet had the experience of feeling for themselves that time is nothing-but-time. This future into which the young tumble … is, to be sure, not time at all: it is world or, more exactly, it is space. The young say of themselves that they have time before them. But what really lies before them is the world, which they absorb and by which they let themselves at the same time be branded. The idea is that the old have life behind them, but this life that is no longer actually lived is nothing but time gathered up, lived, passed away.

To the young, that which they believe to be time becomes consciously an impatient expectation for what is coming to them and is properly due to them after the course of life and death. Time is for them something that obviously moves in space and will enter and step into their life and into them. Characteristically, one is more liekly to say of a young person that the world is open to him rather than that he has time before him.

Améry, On Aging, 14

I wish I had a heart like this.
I wish I had that heart
making circle after circle
as when, in childhood,
I sent stones skipping over the water,
skipping over.
The rest of your life is headed your way!

Ko Un, ‘At Eunpa Reservoir’ (First Person Sorrowful)